The Wiki way

The users of a Wiki think of the process as organic growth. Enterprise IT planners tend to regard it as unstructured chaos. They're both correct. JotSpot's aim is to harmonize these opposing views by empowering users to create islands of structure in their seas of unstructured data. The company's founders, Joe Kraus and Graham Spencer (two members of the original Architext/Excite team), showed me how this works. You write simple Wiki markup to define a form and to display data gathered through that form. When you need to add a new field later, just tack it on. Under the covers, it's all a collection of objects that render as pages and attributes that render as fields.

Of course, there's no free lunch. You pay a price for this kind of flexibility. Systems based on alternative object-oriented styles of data management tend to lack standard query languages, programming interfaces, management tools, and well-defined techniques of schema evolution. These are real problems. But the solutions that address them don't adapt well to the niches where small teams live and work.

An example of a system that is well-adapted to those niches is Lotus Notes. Although it has never meshed cleanly with conventional databases, it has nonetheless enabled programmers -- and quite a few power users -- to create software that deals with idiosyncrasies of data and social context. Internet pundit Clay Shirky calls this "situated software." It's cheap and easy to build, it targets a specific group of people, and it achieves a degree of customization that is not otherwise economically feasible.

I asked the JotSpot guys what will happen if Wiki applications become a maintenance challenge, as did many Notes applications before them. "That's a good problem to have," Kraus said. I agree, up to a point. Messy organic growth is better than no growth, and object-style data makes good fertilizer. In the long run, though, we shouldn't have to make such difficult trade-offs. As object, relational, and XML disciplines converge, all I can say is: Hurry! []

The Wiki lineage traces back to Ward Cunningham's original (and still active) Portland Pattern Repository Wiki. Other Wikis I've used over the years include:

Wikis have come a long way, but an equally long road stretches ahead. I'm convinced that creating and managing microcontent will be an important part of the journey. That's why I've instrumented my blog so that you can, for example, find all the Ward Cunningham quotes, and why I find JotSpot's microcontent strategy so interesting. There are still some missing puzzle pieces. In particular, we need content editors and databases that enable people to live comfortably in the zone where documents meet data. Perhaps mainstream awareness of Wiki technology will help drive that convergence.

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